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Karen Russell Wishes Her Dystopian Novella Didn't Feel So Close To Reality

"Rereading this story by the emergency lighting of 2020, I can see that so many of the fears that inspired [Sleep Donation] have become facts."

Posted on September 30, 2020, at 6:33 p.m. ET

Michael Lionstar, Vintage

Karen Russell's dystopian novella Sleep Donation — originally released as an e-book in 2014 but published in paperback for the first time this week — is an unnervingly prescient story about a widespread, deadly insomnia pandemic. It follows Trish Edgewater, a top recruiter tasked with convincing strangers to donate their healthy sleep to any of the millions of insomniacs who will die without it. But Trish (whose sister died of the plague before sleep donation was available) starts to lose faith when she's asked to continuously collect from a baby discovered to be a universal donor, at the same time as another donor's infectious nightmare wreaks havoc around the world. It's a tense and captivating read, eerie for its familiarity, but it's also an almost philosophical meditation on dreams and consciousness, and a moving examination of love and empathy.

I chatted with Russell via text message about revisiting the novella now, in a world that looks much different than the one in which she wrote it, what dreams (and nightmares) mean to her, and, unexpectedly, the children's show Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.


Hi Karen! Thanks for chatting today — and congrats on the paperback release of Sleep Donation. How does it feel to be revisiting the book six years later?

Hey Arianna! Thanks so much for doing this with me (and sorry for the delay, I was just getting my son set up with Spider-Man in the other room, I miss his old babysitter, Daniel Tiger...)

It’s been very surreal. It’s a novella about a nightmare epidemic — I wish it didn’t feel so close to the reality we’re actually living!

I feel like I need to mention I have a Daniel Tiger song running through my brain as we speak.

Is it the ominous one? “Grown-ups Come Back?” Those songs are so sweet and helpful, and our son loves them, but I can only hear that particular lyric with minor key piano music underneath it... Daniel! The grown-ups don’t always come back, as it turns out...

Yes! There’s a new one, too, around coronavirus, about how grown-ups know how to keep you safe, which, again, is what we’d *hope,* but alas...

Exactly!

So I listened to the audiobook and was floored by how much it echoed the beginning of 2020 — the skepticism about whether or not this insomnia epidemic is real, the backlash around the “cure”... What inspired the story?

I have always struggled with insomnia, and way back in the mists of 2013 I had a tiny assignment: write a list of imaginary innovations. I got an image of a white van on a moonlit suburban street, collecting donations of sleep. A sort of Red Cross for insomniacs.

And the novella, which really started as a sort of corner-of-the-eye project, took on its own strange life from there... I’m sure Marquez was percolating in the back of my 4 a.m. brain, and Octavia Butler and LeGuin. I imagined an America where millions had lost the ability to sleep, and become dependent on “sleep donors.”

I love how a big part of sleep donation, and the danger of it, is the transmission of dreams and nightmares. I’m curious about your own relationship to dreams. Are you a dream analysis person? Do you have vivid dreams? It’s just such an interesting, almost philosophical part of the book, getting at the real stuff of consciousness.

Thanks, Arianna, I really loved the Night World of this story, and I think I’ve only become more terrified of some of the possibilities it outlines. Doesn’t it seem possible that we’ll all be wearing sleep masks soon, uploading our dreams to the Cloud? (I’ve been reading The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, if you’re in the market for some new nightmares...)

I was recently pregnant and I have to say, those were the most vivid, terrifying, and also sublime dreams I’ve ever had. My brother had serious night terrors as a kid, and my son now sometimes has them. The world of dreams is totally fascinating to me. Boring as they often sound to a patient spouse or friend in paraphrase at dawn.

There’s a line in the Slumber Corps brochure: “A dream is the most honest communication a body can have with itself.” I think that’s part of the wonder and terror of dreaming — to be the symphony, conductor, concert hall, and audience all in one. To receive these dispatches from the unconscious. All that said, my own dreams are often depressingly scrutable. You know — I forget to put something in the mail. Or I’m running for my life. Not much to analyze there! Thanks, 2020.

Do you record your dreams, Arianna? Do you have any opinion on what they mean? It’s interesting to me to think about how our shifting views of dreams mirror other enormous cultural shifts. (Is a dream psychologically revealing? Unconscious autobiography? A message, a prophecy? Or just neurochemical byproduct, the janitor sweeping up after hours in your gray matter?)

I’m obsessed with dreams. I don’t record them but I’ve had very vivid dreams for as long as I’ve been on SSRIs (which is most of my adult life, gratefully) and I’ve definitely made my therapist listen to many recaps. One of my favorite theories is that everyone in your dream is actually “you,” so maybe a dream about a fight isn’t about a person you’re angry with, but really how you’re angry at yourself ( 🤯 ) I live for this stuff and I’m sure I’ve bored too many friends with it.

Bahaha! Me too 😱😴 But they do feel like such deeply private messages bottled in our bodies, don’t they? I was so happy that Vintage gave me the green light to work with illustrators on this new paperback edition, because I think collage is a much closer evocation of a dream than any grammatical, linear sentence I can come up with.

I think my new goal in life is to send stories to these Italian geniuses, Ale + Ale, and beg them to turn my flat words into collages. I had so much fun working with them, and then things took an unbelievable turn right around February. Suddenly we went from working on a “nightmare contagion map” to emailing under lockdown.

Courtesy of the author

Collage artwork from Sleep Donation.

I love it!

Isn’t that cool? My son calls that picture “King Baby.” I appreciate the giant coffee cup so much. Somehow that coffee cup really grounds the misty tentacles and the dream transfusion machine, doesn’t it?

It really does. Do you feel differently about the story now versus when you wrote it? In light of how much the world (and especially this country) has changed since then? I don’t want to keep you glued to your phone all night but I realized I haven’t even asked about how greed and capitalism ground the story in reality too...

☄️🔥😓🤯🤬💔

I resisted emojis for a long time, but you know, lately, I’m coming around. I’ve also been resisting the siren song of despair, but like everyone I know, I’m reeling from the cascading crises and sorrows this year, and rereading this story by the emergency lighting of 2020, I can see that so many of the fears that inspired this novella have become facts.

One of the things that’s been keeping me up: watching misinformation about the coronavirus and conspiracy theories like QAnon “go viral”— these secondary epidemics of really malignant lies and rumors. And I’m in Portland, Oregon, where we were recently engulfed in toxic air.

In so many ways, it feels to me like the bill is coming due — it’s clear that an economy that runs on unregulated growth is not sustainable. But if there’s a silver lining, maybe we will wake up to how urgently we need to take action, to transform and not simply reform the way we live.

Uh oh, that got awfully dire. Jokes feel harder to make in 2020, don’t they? I worry that this “nightmare appendix” might feel like a very bad joke, now that we’re in the middle of our own global pandemic 😬

I think everyone is just testing creative boundaries and, in my own experience talking with friends and colleagues, what we’re looking for is constantly shifting. One day I want a dystopia and then the next day I want to watch, like, three seasons of Nashville (which is awful and great if you’re ever in the mood for a ridiculous soap).

Oh my goodness, yes. I love the way we all try to mix ourselves medicine in our home pharmacies... Speaking of secret autobiographies, Netflix and the Google search history really tells you something about your mental state, doesn’t it?

Truly! I think about what I was watching in March and it feels like a lifetime ago. I could keep chatting for hours but I will let you go soon — just a couple quick questions. First (speaking of emojis): Can you describe Sleep Donation with three emojis?

Nooo! Don’t cast me back into my day, Arianna! Seriously, thank you. I don’t get to talk to many new people these socially distanced days...

😴 😳 🌗

Anything you’ve read lately that you’ve loved?

I loved Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Likes, Ayala Dawn Johnson’s Trouble the Saints, and my hilarious and brilliant brother, Kent Russell’s In the Land of Good Living.

Thank you so much, Karen — this has been such a delight, a word which is just very rare right now!

For me too! And now we can prove Daniel Tiger right, at least in the short term. Now I’m singing it as a plea: Grown-ups, come back! Hopefully with a vaccine!

Wishing you only the best dreams 🌚🌈 ●

Parts of this interview have been edited for length and/or clarity.


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